BRAMA, Sep 7, 2004, 11:00 am ET|
Ukraine's Approaching Elections Discussed at TWG Leadership Conference
By Christine Demkowych
© The Washington Group
(Photo L-R) Orest Deychakiwsky (Panel Moderator), Amb. Nelson Ledsky, Dr. Nadia Diuk, Marta Kolomayets, Dr. Taras Kuzio, Gene Fishel
The October presidential election is a high stakes election with the potential to free Ukraine from its Soviet past. But experts in the field invited to assess the pre-election environment at The Washington Group Leadership Conference this summer said the steady onslaught of dirty election tactics will most likely result in keeping Ukraine's ruling elite in power.
"There are more violations in the election process now because the government knows the population doesn't want to vote for Kuchma's regime," said Nadia Diuk, director for Central Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy. "They [the ruling elite] realize they're losing and it's the only way they can stay in power."
Ukraine's October 2004 election represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that an opposition candidate has a strong chance of winning and replacing the old order. The 1994 presidential election-- when Leonid Kuchma beat incumbent Leonid Kravchuk by a 7 percent margin in a run-off vote-- was a case of presidential power passing from one member of the nomenklatura to another. In 1999, Kuchma was reelected for another five-year term.
Of the 24 candidates registered to run in October's race, opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the government's frontrunner, are expected to face off in a second round of voting. Election forecasts predict that Yuschenko will sweep central and western Ukraine, while Yanukovych is expected to garner most of his support in southern and eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Donbass region.
While most polls currently show Yuschenko leading national polls, conference analysts said they fear that Yanukovych will be installed illegally, even if Yuschenko wins. According to Taras Kuzio, visiting professor at George Washington University and resident fellow at the University of Toronto, the final outcome of the presidential race may echo the spring 2004 mayoral election held in Mukachevo, where a candidate representing the government's interests was declared the winner after he clearly lost the vote.
"The Mukachevo election crossed the bounds of what is free and fair," Kuzio said. "The gap between Yushchenko and Yanukovych can only be overcome by outright falsification during the counting."
Kuzio pointed out, however, that President Kuchma believes Western institutions will only consider the election free and fair if a member of the opposition wins.
The recent signing of a Declaration on Honest Elections by Yushchenko and efforts to prevent election fraud by socialist candidate Oleksandr Moroz have not allayed the concerns of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGO) monitoring the election process.
Gene Fishel, senior analyst for the State Department Office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis, said there have been several incidents of pre-election tampering over the past few months, including the closing of Radio Liberty's offices, attempts to shut down select independent Ukrainian newspapers, sudden tax inspections and illegal searches of opposition candidates' offices.
Fishel said there have also been reports of citizens being intimidated by authorities when they have demonstrated their support for the opposition candidate. The distribution of unauthorized opposition leaflets and the removal of opposition candidates' billboards has become a common occurrence. Coverage of the campaign on state-controlled television channels is heavily biased in favor of Yanukovych, while opposition candidates are blocked from having access to electronic media. Physical assaults designed to intimidate and unnerve opposition candidates are reported on a regular basis.
"It is difficult to imagine free and fair elections under these conditions," Fishel said.
In an effort to help voters have a clear understanding of candidates' platforms, the U.S. government has invested approximately $13 million in voter education. According to Marta Kolomayets, director of Partnership For A Transparent Society, a USAID project, the focus of NGOs this election year is to raise voter participation and election awareness among urban youth and rural women.
However, Kolomayets said that numerous NGO organizations based in Ukraine have been attacked for trying to carry out their assignments. Some have been subjected to tax audits, while others have been closed down. Monitors are also concerned by recent reports showing evidence that government agents might seek to provoke ethnic tensions between Tatars and Russians in Crimea and by allowing extremist groups to incite ethnic hatred.
Orest Deychakiwsky, staff advisor at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the need for ensuring a free, fair, open and transparent presidential election in Ukraine was highlighted in the closing statement of a letter recently sent to President Kuchma to improve OSCE compliance. The letter called into question Ukraine's commitment to OSCE principles in light of the troubling pre-election environment.
There is no doubt that the election is of critical importance to the future of Ukraine. Panelists at the conference suggested that sanctions be imposed on Ukraine if the election is deemed unfair. Diuk noted, however, that the entire population of Ukraine should not be penalized for the actions of certain government officials. "Sanctions should only be imposed against the individuals committing the crimes," she said.
Note: Additional reporting and analysis were added to the story to provide readers with updated information.